The news of Keith Olbermann's exit from Current is just a few hours old, yet I am not shocked by what may or may not have happened. One thing seems sure at this point: It was a mutual agreement by both parties.
Television is a nasty, complicated, tension-filled, egocentric business. What you see on the screen comes from endless hours of careful planning, politicking and gallons of caffeine. Doing a nightly show is like being stuck on a treadmill going 10 miles an hour with no off switch. In the best of times, things run smoothly with an occasional bump here and there. Other times it can seem like falling down a bottomless well. You need all the support from your network and studio to get you through the slog.
Keith Olbermann is a gifted journalist and broadcaster, with a deep respect for those who blazed a trail in broadcast news before him. He is also what's known as "high maintenance" venting his excess steam at others, most notably management at the network. This is not a good mix, which I know firsthand.
I was a successful writer/executive producer of network sitcoms for about 20 years. I had a partner who had total disdain for network executives and would fight with them at the drop of a hat. Our partnership worked so well because he was the front man, the more personable of the two who could deal with actors, and I was the more political and business oriented, working behind the scenes with the network, agents and the studio.
The more successful we got, the more volatile my partner became. He picked fights with anyone in authority. After a long day (and night) at the studio I would come home and my real work would begin, answering the calls left on my machine from the bigwigs who my partner had pissed off that day. I'd apologize, soothe their egos, tell them that he didn't mean what he said and promise that I'd rein him in.
Soon it became clear that studios and networks didn't want the headache of having him around. Finally the bottom fell out when we were fired from a show that we ourselves had created. Even though we were still very high in the Hollywood creative world's eyes, the constant tension and volatility my partner brought to the table just wasn't worth it anymore.
Keith Olbermann reminds me of my old partner. Talented and profitable but at an enormous psychological price. There just comes a time when both sides tire of the battle. Apparently Olbermann expected too much from Current, which basically is a startup in the news cycle biz. Technical glitches happen during the shake out period, which may last for a year or so. I'm sure Olbermann knew what he was getting into, but still when it happens on air, it's not the most secure feeling. However, taking as many absent days as Olbermann did defiantly has a detrimental effect on the staff and viewers. Recently I was starting to tune out Countdown and watch MSNBC during that hour because of Keith's spotty attendance record. Also bailing on the network during its primary coverage sent way too may wrong signals to everyone.
Was management right for clamping down so hard on KO? Yes and No. Was Olbermann right for trying to embarrass management in public? No, but he couldn't help it. Like my former partner that's who he is. A divorce was inevitable.
Will this signal the end of Current? No. To be honest, I actually enjoyed Cenk Uygur, Jennifer Granholm and the other Young Turk's coverage of the primaries. Plus now the network is broadcasting in the mornings with live feeds from Bill Press and Stephanie Miller's AM radio shows. I think Elliot Spitzer is a fine replacement for Olbermann. Forget his appearances on the overly produced show he had on CNN. Instead, watch his numerous pieces in Bill Maher. Spitzer is excellent. I have no doubt Current will find its mojo.
As for Olbermann, I don't know where he goes next. It's a shame because he was the preeminent newscaster on the air for the last five years. His talent is too huge to keep hidden away. Media is changing and perhaps he will find another platform. I'll definitely follow him as a viewer or reader. Although it hurts now, I think both will end up on their feet as long as this doesn't become a death cage match in court.
Just remember, they might call it news, but at the end of the day it's really just show biz.